The Kids Are All Right

September 1, 2010

A teenage boy, Laser (Josh Hutchinson), has been hanging around a new friend quite a bit recently.  His friend, an unbelievable (literally, he’s so one-dimensional it is almost offensive) douche named Clay (Eddie Hassell) convinces him to look through Laser’s mothers’ bedroom for weed.  They find a vibrator and a porn DVD, and quickly pop it in the laptop to watch it.  For reasons unbeknownst to anyone, the mothers, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), have it in their heads that their son might be exploring his sexuality with his friend.  Jules, right on cue, barges into Laser’s room to find them watching the porno, which features man-on-man sex.  The mothers sit Laser down, and attempt to broach the subject of his sexuality by asking him if he has anything he wants to ask them.  He asks, quite reasonably, why they watch gay porn.  Nic, the Type A controlling mother tells him that, firstly, they don’t watch it very often, and secondly, he shouldn’t be snooping around their room.  Jules, the more wayward and intuitive mother, weighs in with an amusing and complicated explanation of the sometimes counter-intuitive nature of human sexuality, and that as a lesbian couple they are focused on the ‘inward’ and sometimes get turned on by the ‘outward’.  They resume hinting that he is hiding something, to which he relents and admits that he has met the sperm donor from which he and his sister were conceived.  Responding to the visibly shocked reaction of his mothers, he asks if they thought he was gay.  “No, no, of course not!” they respond.

It is incredibly reductive to say it, but I’m going to anyway:  this brief section of the film basically sums up the whole work.  You have the mothers, both well defined by extraordinary performances and believable dialogue, from which their characters come out organically.  There is the treatment of the sexuality of the mothers, which is honest, interesting, and matter-of-fact enough to assure us that these people have lived with it a long time and it’s almost more of an incidental than a defining characteristic.  There is humor in the responses to Laser that, again, comes from dialogue, delivery, and most importantly character.  There is also, however, the thuddingly lame comedy of errors humour that you’d find in almost any bog-standard Hollywood dramedy.  Not, thankfully, that it is the humour that is replicated (it is really the only instance of a major miscalculation on the part of the writers, Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, when it comes to bringing the funny), but rather the scene is indicative of a desire to be mainstream that runs throughout the film and sits at odds with its better aspects.  Oh, and also, the kids are merely plot devices to get the narrative moving, despite Cholodekno (who also directed) insisting otherwise throughout.

The sperm donor is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an amiable and largely carefree restaurateur who has lot of self-righteous, middle-class post-hippy ideas about life and himself, though is never terribly smug about them.  The kids, including Joni (Mia Wasikowska), are keen to get to know him, much to the chagrin of Nic, who doesn’t want her daughter’s last summer at home before heading off to college dominated by some interloper.  Nic is a doctor and the breadwinner of the family, while Jules is just starting on another in a long line of careers, this time as a landscape architect.  Paul hires her to clean up his yard, and before long they’ve begun an affair.  The narrative is hardly original or particularly interesting, but what sells it are the performances and the writing of the trio of adults at the centre of the story.  The film never takes sides, and by subtly developing the relationships and our understanding of them, it denies us any easy judgments.  Paul is so likeable and charmingly falling for the family and the things in life he’s so far missed out on.  Jules is understandably annoyed by the way she feels belittled by Nic though also annoyed with herself for what she hasn’t achieved.  Nic is the probably the most difficult role to play, as she spends a healthy portion of the film as the buzzkill neurotic, but what’s impressive about The Kids Are All Right is the way the characters are always developing and always revealing another facet of themselves.  That Ruffalo can play the affable chap is no surprise, but the way Paul turns out here is surprising and disarming.  Moore’s movement from freedom to guilt and back again is surprisingly sympathetic.  The real plaudits should be reserved for Bening, who achieves here what she couldn’t (though perhaps nobody could have) in a vaguely similar role in American Beauty.  There’s a scene at dinner, where Nic has decided to put aside her neurosis and reservations and really try with Paul.  She’s awkward in her earnest efforts, interrupting conversations without realizing, and almost embarrassing herself with a rendition of a Joni Mitchell song that goes on too long, and yet it’s oddly heartwarming the way she doesn’t realize how much she’s failing but also how much it really means to her to accomplish the social task.  The rug gets pulled out from under her in the same scene, and the subtlety to which she brings to the performance is masterful.  She she should be a lock for the token minor indie hit acting nomination.

And yet there are the kids, whose performances aren’t particularly bad, but the writing really lets the side down.  They play no significant part of the story other than to inform the three leads’ characters, so when we get Joni with her friends, grappling for a few minutes with her awkward sexuality or her anger at her mother’s betrayal, it feels like a token gesture by the writers to give the supporting roles some heft, but they wind up killing the momentum.  I was perplexed by a healthy portion of the final ten minutes, wondering what I was supposed to be caring about and what Joni is discovering about herself in that empty dorm room.  The ending, as a whole, is actually pretty poor.  Jules gives an impassioned and impromptu speech that is meant to be an emotional climax, but it feels forced and is only redeemed by Bening’s reaction.  The final scene in the car is no better than so many American Indie wannabe-crossovers, from Little Miss Sunshine to Away We Go.  It’s a giant cliché of catharsis and resolution that doesn’t really come from anywhere, but it’s shot like a final moment and soundtracked by a reflective, plucked guitar.  The story and resolution don’t live up to the performances, so in the end, the parts are better than the sum.  It’s a shame, because there’s an honesty and a warmth through so much of the running time that the film doesn’t deserve the bad taste that’s left by that ending.

-M

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